VSS Illustrator Interviews

In doing these interviews, we hope to give you a glimpse into our artist members' unique personalities, a new perspective on their wonderful work, and the opportunity to know what inspires them!

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Matthew Gauvin

This week we have an interview with Matthew Gauvin. In addition to working hard on his children's books and other illustrations, Matthew is a really nice and helpful guy. On his blog, he's always posting tutorials, taking readers through his artwork in easy to understand steps, and discussing interesting illustration topics. Thanks for stopping by to meet Matthew! 
How did you get started in illustration?
       I would have to say my illustration career started in high school. While I did do lots of drawing much before this point, it is during high school that I really started to draw with an illustrator's mindset, drawing and painting holiday cards for the relatives, designing elaborate posters for class presentations and really going the extra mile in my art classes. The first time I realized I could make money for such art was when I drew a Christmas card for a class assignment and had another student offer to buy the card for a family member. It depicted a guy with a cat clinging to his face, Christmas lights wrapped around him, one of his feet stuck through a present and I think I even went as far as to have the tree on fire, and of course the words Merry Christmas sprawled across the top. I’ve since learned that the fellow who wanted to buy the card has become a comedian. So who knows, maybe I inspired him as well!
      A clearer push towards the world of illustration came from my high school art teacher who was the first person to ever inform me that art colleges exist. What a revelation for me! He then proceeded to enter my work into various competitions on the statewide, national and international level which eventually lead to my acceptance in Mass College of art, as I won a couple of the competitions. My art portfolio alone was rejected until my teacher called up with the news about the art competitions results.
         My first gig that really got me going in children’s book illustration came when I responded to a fellow wanting a children’s CD cover illustrated. I commuted over an hour outside of Boston to meet with him and another fellow in a police department. I soon found out they needed someone to illustrate a whole book, not just a CD cover. They had developed an entire character for the children’s safety course for the police department and needed me to bring him to life. I never would have applied to illustrate a book at that time in my career because I knew I wasn’t ready for that yet, but the circumstances worked out perfectly to get me past my insecurities and take the leap.
What is your favorite medium? Can you describe your usual work process for us?
         At this time my favorite medium is mixed media with watercolor, gouache and colored pencils and even a bit of Photoshop thrown in. I used to work exclusively in oils until I found that watercolors allowed me to work cheaper, paint much better faces and expressions at  a smaller size, they are a bit faster, and were easier to store, ship, scan etc. There are things I love about both worlds but I’ll focus on my mixed media approach.
        Regardless of the medium for children’s books, I always start by breaking the story into pages trying to make it fit the basic 32 page layout if possible. I then start extremely rough thumbnail sketches for each page of the story while getting client input. I generally give them between five and ten options to choose from. At some point I begin work on character designs which sometimes involves making clay models and always involves finding tons of reference photos for hair, clothing, body type, poses etc. Often if I can’t find a good reference for the pose or lighting I need to capture, I will strike the pose myself. Then onto rough drafts which eventually get worked into final drafts. Sometimes I do B&W value samples. Throughout this process I plan room for the text of the story.
        One of the hardest tasks I find is the color sample stage. At this point I usually have a pretty good idea of what colors I imagine and how they will look in my style of painting. But the tricky part is trying to relay those color ideas to the client in an accurate manner without doing all the work of actually painting the final art. More than once at this stage I have had clients nearly decide to walk away or have someone else paint my drawings because of how bad the loose color samples look to them. I usually work with self publishers. SO this process has changed a lot over time for me. Now, I generally print the drawing small on a heavy duty paper and use rough quick watercolors going into some detail to put the client at ease and of course the final paintings will be done in watercolors. Sometimes I use Photoshop color adjustments to get other variations on color and come up with ideas I may not have thought of on my own. I generally do about five to ten variations on color for each image for the client to choose from.
        In the final stage I print the final drawing onto heavy watercolor paper and paint on top of it, which surprisingly covers the ink the way I paint. I have a couple long sheets of Plexiglas with holes in them that I use to tape a few images to at one time. Then I work on a few images at the same time, side by side so I don’t have to keep remixing colors for elements that are the same color in each image. There are good things and negative to this approach as I did manage to spill a large bowl of water over about five images all with one quick miscalculated movement. Luckily the water was clean and somehow didn’t efect any of the images which were all half painted at that point. I can’t say I wasn’t seriously considering a switch to digital art that day,LOL.
Do you write as well as illustrate your own stories? Which comes first for you?
         I’ve always wanted to write my own stories and have jotted down plenty of ideas that come to me. One day I definitely expect to write and illustrate them if I ever have money and time to do so.

Do you illustrate full time or do you also have a day job?  How do you balance the different aspects of your life?
         I’ve illustrated full time for the past five years. While I don’t have a day job, I do have plenty of other aspects in my life to try and balance while trying desperately to build my small illustration business. I won’t go into all the specifics of that, but to answer the question, I find it quit hard at times to balance my social life, faith life, and home life with my art career which is soo demanding. When I first graduated from college I actually slept overnight in my studio whenever and just worked good long twelve hour days whenever I wanted, with no major interruptions. I actually had a studio in an old abandoned convent. Working 60 hour weeks on nothing but my art was quite easy. These days I may still occasionally get in a full 60 hours but a lot of time in between is spent working on other tasks that God has scheduled for me.
Where in the country do you live? Could you describe your studio?
       These days I’m back in Vermont living in the mountains. My studio has evolved over the years, going from a corner of my bedroom to a full blown area fully dedicated to making art. In the photos you can see I’ve got windows filling a couple walls as the space is an old sun porch that I claimed. Another wall is filled with a peg board full of sculpture tools for making maquetts, tapes, tacks, yardsticks, tripods, papers, drawing tools etc. Throughout the studio I hang various illustrations I’ve done and a few prints from favorite artists. My main work area is a decent size drafting table I got from a good friend about seven years ago and a computer with an eight year old monitor. Above all of that is a large work light.
Tell us about your education and training. Did you learn more through school or your own experiences?
         I went to Massachusetts College of art and design for four years of study and graduated with a BFA in Illustration. I do think that time was important for giving me the basic structure I needed to be successful as an illustrator but also feel much was lacking. College taught me a lot about meeting deadlines and taught me a lot about how to make art. However, very little was taught on the business side of things and on the specific details of how to illustrate children’s books and almost nothing was taught in regards to digital illustration, despite how extremely important that is in today’s world of illustration.
         I learned the basics of color theory but didn’t learn what sorts of colors to use in children’s books. I learned how to draw the nude model but didn’t learn to paint and draw children and how to design characters or how to draw folds in pants and clothing or how to draw various facial expressions and body language or basically how to invent a character and poses from scratch and make them look believable. I learned how to paint individual images that were harmonious in color and mood and atmosphere but we didn’t learn how to create an entire book filled with images that seemed as though they belonged in the same book and that lead from one to another. we learned how to work with teachers and other students but didn’t learn how to work for a client or how to get clients in the first place. I learned how to make art but we didn’t learn how to create a business from scratch. I learned how to make postcards and business cards but we didn’t hear much about websites except that we should probably get one. I could go on and on with examples but my point is that four years simply isn’t enough time to learn everything one needs to know about illustration. I do feel four years of time devoted to studying art is helpful to getting the ball rolling at least. It was also particularly important to spend time in Boston living and working as that in and of itself taught me a lot as well as all the great people I met through college.
Please list any of your publications and let us know your website.
         My publications are available through my website at www.matthewgauvin.com  or through the links on the side of my blog at http://matthewgauvin.blogspot.com/ Over my five years of being a children’s book illustrator I have illustrated six children’s books and a bunch of other smaller stuff like cd covers, a chapter book and a couple book covers and logos. Of those books, the only two currently in print are “The Caterpillar and the Express Train” and “The Little Boy Without a Name and Without a Birthday”. Both are done with author Jeremy Foster-Fell. I just finished “Allegra Friend of All Monsters” which will be published by the end of September.
Tell us about your current project.
         I’m currently working on a chapter book called “Samantha Looses the Box Turtle” which will also be published for the kindle and nook by the end of September. This is part of a series of books to come by Daisy Griffin. More info about the books can be found at http://www.samsanimals.info/
Who are your favorite children’s illustrators or authors?
         There really are too many to list them all. If you asked me that question back in college I generally just didn’t have any answers as I didn’t really study the work of other artists. These days I feel like every time I go on another illustrator’s website, I love their work more than my own. I have found many more artists whose work I love while reading these interviews with the VSS artists. I’ve also found that changing mediums from oils to watercolors has opened a whole new world of artists to me that I wouldn’t have given much thought to before.
    I think one of the most influential illustrators that I have followed for the longest time and who has taught me tons over the years, is James Gurney of the “dinotopia” series of books. His blog and books are invaluable! Another whom I’ve followed for a while is Holly Hobby who wrote and illustrated the “Toot and Puddle” series of books. Recently I’ve come to love the work of Brenda Clark in the “Franklin” series. There are just tons of artists whose work I will never get tired of looking at like Drew Struzan, Tony Diterlizzi, David Palumbo, Phyliss Hornung Peacock, Dan Dos Santos, Richard Jesse Watson, Gregory Manchess, Scott Burdick and Brad Teare to name a few.
If you could be any children’s book character, who would you be and why?
       I’m going to have to go with Garfield on that one. I know he’s primarily a comic book character but he has a couple children’s books too.  Why? Because he gets to eat all of that lasagna, stays in bed whenever he wants, a couple of things I don’t have the pleasure of doing. He also knows how bad Mondays can be for your health.

What inspires you? 
        Basically I feel as though I have two lungs that I breathe with each day, my life as an artist and my life as a Catholic. So my faith is a HUGE inspiration in my life. God has brought me through a lot and continues to guide me. My faith inspires me to get up each day and encourages me to be the best artist, son, friend, etc. that I can be. I’ve known many artists who didn’t make it far simply because they didn’t have the drive or motivation to pursue their dreams. I get inspiration from other artists, from friends, family etc. but I can’t stress enough what my faith has enabled me to do with my life.  

What did you want to be when you grew up?
       I really can’t remember many things I wanted to be when I was growing up. A good deal of my younger life I ran around riding bikes all over town, playing baseball, playing GI Joe in my really early years and building tree forts. I always enjoyed creating and designing things and working with my hands. I had amazing tree fort ideas, had creative problem solving inventions that I often drew or even made from scratch. I built some three wheel reclining tricycles for adults before I even knew they were being created elsewhere, I designed my own computer desk and made a full size French easel while others were building bird houses and gun racks. Later in life I really enjoyed working on houses doing siding and roofing, painting, sheet rocking etc.  So I guess I probably wanted to be an inventor or a builder, contractor of some sort. I also remember ever since I was a kid I’ve had it at the back of my mind to be a priest. I did some pretty serious discernment for that in my college years.
What do you like to do when you aren’t working?
        I enjoy being outdoors whenever possible because my work unfortunately keeps me inside more than I would like. I love to plain air paint alla prima style, I love hiking, bike riding, and various other outdoor sports if and when the opportunity ever presents itself but I’m not one of those folks who has favorite teams or who watches sports on TV. I also still love building stuff and working with my hands so I love the opportunity to help build a maple sugar house, go haying at the farm, paint a house, garden, fix stuff around the house etc. As you can probably tell, I’m more of a summer guy and yet I Love Vermont!

What job would you like to have if you weren’t an artist?
        Hmmm, kind of goes along with the question about what I wanted to be when I was growing up. Being an artist is all I’ve known and strived for over these past nine years so it’s really hard to imagine what I would want to be if I wasn’t an artist.
Any advice you’d pass along to illustrators just getting started?
          Get your work onto a website or blog of some sort so you have a concrete place to send folks to see your work. Don’t expect people to open images in their e-mails when they probably have dozens of folks replying to their ads. There are plenty of free options out there. If they can’t see your work, they won’t hire you. Also as important as it is to make good art, in order to be hired to make art, it’s even more important to be good at social networking, marketing and promotion. You can be a fantastic artist and a lousy social networker and not get any work. You can be a so-so artist and a fantastic social networker and have all the work you can handle.  I’ve still got a lot to learn in that area but have made some decent strides over the past few years. Persistence is key.

Anything else you’d like our readers to know?
        About a half hour ago my young cat chased three large turkeys into a tall tree out in the back yard. Just figured you should all know that no turkeys were harmed during the writing of this interview. 


  1. Very nice interview, I enjoyed reading it :) Thanks Matthew! I can share the experience on getting colors right - I use a similar process printing a line art onto heavy watercolor paper and paint over it.

  2. Thanks so much Alex! Tried to reply the other day but couldn't get my comment to post. Can't satand when that happens! I'm gl;ad you enjoyed it. I enjoyed reading yours as well.The only drawback for me in printing onto watercolor paper is that I can't imagine having it work for anythign heavier than 140lb paper. I suppose every printer is different but mine has all it can do to feed that weight paper through. i have to gently roll the paper in advance to take a bit of the stiffness out of it. Have you had any luck with 300lb? I know you probably won't stop by here agian but figured I woudl ask anyway,LOL